Here Comes the Night

All the best cats appreciate literature.
All the coolest cats appreciate literature.

Draw the shades. Light the fire. Dig into that pile of books you’ve been saving for this: The Long Dark Tunnel of the Northwest Night.

In November the whiplash-inducing sudden end of Daylight Saving Time sends many of us inside to seek bright cheer through various means. Some turn to social networks. Others to cable TV. Still others, creatures of the night year-round, embrace the darkness, I suppose.

For me, the saving grace of the season isn’t the twinkling lights festooned on trees and houses, or the comforting abundance of nature’s harvest, but the freedom to burrow into the piles of books I’ve stored against this time.

Squirrels can keep the nuts. I sustain myself with books.

Seattle is a booklover’s haven. Even in these testing economic times, the plucky independent bookstores in this town continue to provide a forum for ideas, community and progressive action that is as cheering as a cup of ale, or cocoa if you prefer, beside a crackling fire.

Others may prefer the thrills to be found in skiing, or snowboarding, or the dizzying swirl of ice skating. But not for me. These old bones will settle with a good book in a cozy chair until the planet tilts back to the light.

Mythed Opportunities

I’ve got nothing in particular against blockbuster movies. I appreciate the way they dazzle and explode and create jobs for a small army of artistic technical engineers. But the movies that truly thrill me tend to be the small quiet ones, the ones that dig down and grapple with the slippery business of being human, or not.

Last night I watched  “Pretty Bird,” a small independent film from 2008 about three men existing on the slim borderline between failure and mediocrity who catch fire when one of them, the dreamer/hustler Curtis, played brilliantly by Billy Crudup, inspires the other two to believe in his dream of building a rocket belt. Curtis, with his guileless smile and serene self-confidence, exemplifies the perfect huckster, one who believes so fiercely in his own impossible schemes that he projects an innocent aura which lulls even the hardened skeptic.

Paul Giamatti, as the skeptical rocket scientist, is terrific as always, portraying a bitter genius driven to the edge of madness by double dealing and corporate abuse. And as Kenny, the sweetly devoted friend who cheerfully sinks all his money into the project, David Hornby is achingly convincing.

The fictional movie is based on actual events, but it’s fueled by the deft character studies. There’s humor and intrigue and a certain amount of suspense, but what you come away with is a kind of modern version of Icarus. The dream of flight continues to lift men out of their ordinary lives, but coming back down remains a challenge.

“Pretty Bird” reminded me in some ways of another small independent film that blew me away back in the 90s. “Bottle Rocket,” the first film written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, is another story of three men, each a bit lost, each motivated by a different passion. The film, which really showcases the Wilson brothers, Owen and Luke, is funny and tender and understated, and, though the characters aspire to be successful thieves, it ends up making the same point as “Pretty Bird.”

You can fool yourself, and you may fool your friends for a while, but sooner or later, if you’re human, you have to come back to earth. All rockets fizzle eventually.

Walking and Gawking


Among the pleasures on our frequent walks around Seattle are discoveries of unexpected art, some designed and installed by humans, some the work of Nature, some the transitory miracles of a unique moment.

My attempts to capture the sense of wonder that these sightings inspire are doomed from the start. Two dimensions are almost always trumped by three, or four, and at times it seems to me that there are far more than that. But that’s probably just the flashbacks talking.

Anyway. In this season when the city is besieged by pirates, Vikings, and tourists, the urge to get out and explore tempts us off the beaten paths. Most recently that led us over to Alki and the Whale Tail Playground, where the undersea theme is played out in three dimensions. I was drawn to the life-size cast-bronze octopus, which anchors one edge of the “Swimming Stars” entry plaza designed by Seattle artist Lezlie Jane. The children clambering over the nearby whale tail slide and the replica lighthouse may be unaware of the thoughtful elements at work in the colored and stamped concrete design studded with yellow mirrored stars in Jane’s tribute to Cetus, “The Great Whale Constellation,” but surely the sparkle of creative fire must catch in some young minds while playing there.

Come up and see me sometime.
Come up and see me sometime.

At Lincoln Park, a short distance south of Alki, we came upon an example of Nature’s artful sense of humor in a striking Madrona tree. Classic mythology tells of dryads, tree nymphs whose life depends on the trees to which they are connected. Admittedly, the first thought that went through my mind at the sight of this tree was that it called out for a caption contest. But bawdy subtext aside, it’s a work of art. And if you have the time to listen, it will speak to you.


I had thought I was finished with vampires.

You know how it is. One minute you’re obsessed with the whole ‘creature-of-the-night-immortal-love-hunk’ idea and the next . . . not so much.

And with the plethora of vampire-related novels, television shows, and films glutting the marketplace, it seemed inevitable that the mania for all things fangish would play itself out. And I was fine with that. Until I took one last bite. Now I’m ready for more.

Or rather, Moore, as in Christopher Moore, whose hilariously snarky Bite Me simply won my heart. Yes, it’s wildly inventive, raunchy and irreverent, as are all of Moore’s works. But there’s also a cleverly hidden soft delicious core of sappy goodness that—well, I’m a sucker for sappy goodness, what can I say?

It’s not a book designed to appeal to the masses, which is probably just as well. Nor is it likely to win any awards from highbrow literary types who sneer at pop fiction. But, you know what? There are times when I don’t want to read a book that’s going to break my heart, or completely hammer me with the unrelenting misery of much of the world. Yeah, I know it all needs to be fixed. But every now and then, we who hope to make things better need a break from all the angst and anguish. And for that, I’m deeply, truly grateful for Christopher Moore and his brilliant comic gift.

My advice for the world weary? Next time the news makes you want to do something unhealthy, try Bite Me instead. It may surprise you.

Lurching Toward Freedom

All right, so the U.S. is out of the World Cup again, and Andy Roddick went down swinging before the semifinal at Wimbledon, and the Mariners, well, they’re still trying. But we still have one thing to celebrate, right?

That’s right, the freedom to dress up as a zombie and lurch through the streets with thousands of like-minded undead neighbors all united in the common drive to wrest the world record back from the Brits. And what record would that be, you ask? Why, the record number of zombies gathered in one place at one time, of course.

The proudly independent Fremont neighborhood in Seattle held the record last year with a tally of 3,894, but later they were usurped by the British, who mustered 4,026 zombies to claim the title. Organizers of this year’s Zombie Walk, slated for tomorrow, July 3, in Fremont, are hoping to smash the record with a massive turnout of gruesome participants.

It’s more than just the fun of creeping people out with homemade gory effects. There’s also a blood drive (hah), a food drive to benefit Solid Ground, a zombie concert and a screening of a classic zombie film.

The fact that zombie walks have become a regular feature of the modern cultural landscape worldwide, with annual events taking place from Brisbane to Pittsburgh in an atmosphere of friendly, albeit twisted, competition, says something about our species. I’m not sure what. But for some reason I find it cheering.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan of the genre, or that I’ve succumbed to the anti-charm of zombie chic, but rather I like that it’s a game without rules that anyone can play. It takes a lot of coordination, dedication and effort to master most games. But anyone can be a zombie. You just have to stumble along, aimlessly, moaning a bit from time to time. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the idea. There’s a little zombie in all of us.

The Dragons of Summer

Summer’s almost here. The ice cream truck has already made a few tentative sweeps of the neighborhood, tootling its signature “Bicycle Built For Two” theme song. Lawn chairs have been wiped free of spiders, and umbrellas lowered to half mast. Any day now the rains will taper off and the glorious Seattle sunshine will triumph over the gray sky for a few blissful months.

Many people choose summer as a time to travel, to leave home and see exotic new lands. But it’s hard to leave Seattle in the summer, when for two straight months it’s a non-stop hiking, biking, sailing, gardening, ball playing, fireworks dazzling, festival dancing in the street kind of place. The sun comes up around four a.m. and the sky stays light until ten. You have to pace yourself so that you don’t burn out by two in the afternoon. Coffee helps. But for me the best strategy to get the most out of the summer marathon is to partake of a shady spot and a good book midway through the long afternoons.

Currently I’m savoring His Majesty’s Dragon, an exceptional fantasy by Naomi Novik, whose interest in Napoleonic history and experience as a computer programmer working on game design is reflected in the smart plotting and clear vision of her writing. The dragon at the heart of her novel is a fully realized character, and the alternate history in which dragons form an integral part of the military force is brilliantly evoked. I’m so in.

It helps, of course, that the day before I started reading the book I went to see How To Train Your Dragon. The bulk of the matinee audience was made up of fidgeting four-year-olds, a few parents, and a handful of college-age dragon enthusiasts. And then there was me – absolutely mesmerized from start to finish. And not just by the dragon, who is as cute as a kitten, if a kitten were the size of a seaplane. What keeps HTTYD in the air is the snarky humor, the sleight of hand plot exposition, and a core of timeless themes – the tension between father and son, the desire to fit in, to stand out, to find love/acceptance, etc. Yeah. I liked it. It’s a kids’ movie and I liked it. So there.

The common denominator in Novik’s dragon series and the animated film is that the dragons conflate expectations. By avoiding the pitfalls of conventional conceptions of dragons as mere one-dimensional fire-breathing monsters, the author and filmmakers succeed in making dragons heroic. And that’s what I’m looking for these days. The world seems all too well supplied with real monsters. It’s hard to get away from them.

This summer, when I want relief, I’ll take dragons.

Write or Wrong

I can’t relate to Kindle.
The iPad leaves me cold.

I understand that the publishing industry is running scared. Fewer people read books these days. Fewer still buy them. Profit margins are shrinking, and publishers are grasping at any device to lure customers away from movies, television, and video games and back to the printed word.

I have friends who adore their high tech gadgets. But I cannot embrace a future without books. And when I say books, I mean the kind with paper pages that whisper softly as you turn them, that get stained but don’t die when you spill coffee on them.

So, being the deluded optimist that I am, after reading in  The New Yorker how Apple founder Steve Jobs asserted that forty percent of Americans read only one book or less in the last year, I choose to focus on the positive side of that statistic. Math was never my strong suit, but it seems to me that the other sixty percent must be reading at least one book a year. In fact, according to  some sources, the Americans who do read tend to read an average of twenty books a year ( Not too shabby.

However, we all know that statistics were invented to facilitate obfuscation.
What has me worried is the idea of a future in which children don’t sit in their parents’ laps listening to “Goodnight Moon,” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” but instead watch a video played on a flatscreen mounted in the crib. I suppose that seems fairly harmless to the generation whose children have grown up watching videos in the family SUV.

Of course sci-fi writers have been painting ominous pictures of dystopian futures for some time, but the disturbing truth is that reality  has a way of outdoing fiction for flat-out bizarre terror. I recently read a deeply disturbing yet brilliant book about an all-too possible future where the kind of non-stop video and internet info-slush-pile no longer takes place outside the human body in a handheld device. In “feed,” M.T. Anderson’s 2002 prize-winning young adult novel, children are implanted with a transmitter that keeps them continually updated, connected and marketed to in a world which has become toxic through pollution and corporate over-reaching. In the context of Anderson’s imaginative vision, the notion of reading a hand-held book seems laughably out-dated. But the chilling message of “feed” reveals the danger of surrendering our autonomy to giant powers outside ourselves, who decide what stories will be told, and how.

Stories have power. Every religion is founded on a story. Something precious is lost when we lose our ability to give and receive the spoken and written word. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook, and whatever comes after them. But I hope in our rush to “improve” the technology of the book we don’t lose sight of what really matters.

Written books are the notes we pass in the classroom of human history. Pssst. Pass it on.

Glee Fool

Glee is one of those odd words which conveys in one short syllable both a giddy positivism and its twisted darker side. It’s a slightly psychotic word.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so apt as the title of the latest Fox network hit, which revolves around the bright hopes and delusional romances of a group of musically gifted high school students and the Machiavellian machinations of the cheerleading coach determined to destroy them.

Gosh. If that’s not good TV, I don’t know what is.

Well, truly, I don’t think I would ever make the cut as a TV programmer, since every show I like tends to get cancelled after one season. “Freaks and Geeks,” for instance. Now there was a brilliant, funny, subtle show about the American high school experience. The cast in that show hardly every broke into song without irony. Ah well, at least many of them, such as James Franco and Seth Rogen, have moved on to illustrious or less lustrous careers in show biz.

The cast of “Glee” has already won a Golden Globe for its first season, which suggests that the actors may be stuck in high school for a bit longer than the customary four years. And I must confess, I do like “Glee,” in part because it’s so far removed from any reality I experienced in high school back in the pre-tech age, when a student could be sent home for wearing sandals, or a skirt which didn’t reach the knee. Back when “classic” rock was cutting edge.

But I digress. “Glee” is put together with the clear-eyed marketing savvy of a soft-drink campaign. Suffice it to say that in my day no member of the football team, much less the star quarterback, would have also been singing and dancing in the glee club. But in “Glee” the cast is a triumph of precision political correctness, with representatives from a rainbow of ethnic groups, as well as a token gay member, a few handicapped and a misunderstood diva in the Barbra Streisand mold before it set.

What prevents the show from being as insipid as a Pepsi ad is the gleeful venom of the antagonist, the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, played with verve and crisp conviction by Jane Lynch, an actress who for years has added panache to standard sitcom fare such as “Two and Half Men.” It’s great to see Lynch enjoying herself in this nasty role. Without her, “Glee” would sink from the weight of its relentless power pop numbers and flashy dance routines. I mean, seriously, what are these kids doing in high school when they obviously belong on Broadway?

The answer, of course, is that they aren’t in school. It’s make-believe as far removed from reality as any “reality” show, only a lot more fun to watch.

That said, it can’t last. If I like it, it’s doomed.
Mwah hah hah.

The Big Tease

Rainy Day Tulips
Rainy Day Tulips

They’re doing it again.

Up there in Skagit Valley, where the land flattens out for miles and the snow geese arrive in feathered clouds each spring, the tulips are tempting.

I succumbed to the call when I first moved to Seattle four years ago. I thought what could be more thrilling than acres and acres of tulips in bloom?

I can laugh about it now.

Veterans of the Pacific Northwest know all too well that only an idiot would expect to tiptoe through the tulips in early April, when the annual Skagit County Tulip Festival gets underway. The sadder but wiser tulip enthusiast wears full-body Gore-Tex and carries a sturdy full-size umbrella. For, although it is true that when the tulips bloom, the fields light up, it is also true that the sun is under no obligation to make an appearance.

The year I went, the temperatures were hovering in the low forties, wind gusts were in the teens, and a bracing drizzle completed the ensemble. Before I’d managed to shoot my compulsory two dozen snapshots, my nose was red, my lips were blue, and my teeth were chattering. Good times.

I’ll always remember that day for another reason, too. When I got home with my frozen feet and chapped face, I was drinking a restorative cup of cocoa when I opened my email and found a gushing note from my then-publisher, who was halfway through reading my second novel and loving it. She assured me she would be contacting me soon and that I could “expect good news.”

Pucker Up
Pucker Up
Hah, hah. Yes. I can laugh about it now.

Still, I’m glad I went to the tulip festival, if only because now each year when the forecasters begin the tulip drum roll, I don’t feel the urgency to salute. Been there, survived that. I’d do it again. Probably not this year, though. After we had the warmest January on record it seems we shot our wad for warmth. Since then it’s been back to the good old forty degrees with intermittent showers that we all know and love so well. It’s not so bad as long as you can find a nice warm bookstore or cafe to while away the wet hours. And of course it makes it easier to stay inside at one’s desk and work on that next novel. The one that’s sure to find a loving home somewhere.

The sun will come out eventually. I’m still expecting good news.

Mythic Mountain

We’ve all seen it. On the news, in movies and cartoons. It’s a man-made icon of one of America’s most compelling products. Its image evokes a land of golden opportunities, bright stars and happy endings. And it’s threatened by development.

The Hollywood Sign has loomed in tilted splendor above sprawling Los Angeles since 1923. In the beginning, no one expected it to become a national landmark, much less a treasured symbol of an industry that markets dreams to the world. In a way, the Hollywood sign represents the imaginary romance of LA, in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents the imaginary romance of Paris. At the time of its construction in 1889, many Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower an eyesore and a waste of money. Yet in time the city embraced the tower, and it became symbolic of all things French. In Hollywood, surely no one expected the 45-foot-high crude letters on a mountainside to become legendary, yet so they have.

In the eighty-seven years since it was first built as a temporary advertisement for “Hollywoodland” the sign has been restored a few times, most recently in 1978 when the original letters were replaced with steel thanks to the philanthropy of major Hollywood supporters including Roy Rogers and Alice Cooper. The sign itself is now owned and maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But the 138 acres of open space behind the sign which provide its dramatic backdrop are now threatened by development. Supporters are trying to raise 12.5 million before April 14 to protect the mountain on which the Hollywood Sign stands for all time.

It could be argued in a world like ours, where tragedy and chaos devastate lives with depressing regularity, that to put money and effort into saving a mere symbol of the creative imagination is frivolous, if not reprehensible. But I would argue that the human ability to imagine a better life, to hope for an end to suffering, to dream of a better future, is what enables us to continue fighting to mend our world. And Hollywood, for all its flaws, feeds the flames of hope all over the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.